Friday, July 11, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Pork Belly Cha-Su from Taishoken

Porkbelly cha-Su,
You're sunshine on cloudy day.
Yum at Taishoken.

As a ramen shop, when you can elevate the flavour and execution of your Cha-su or protein, people in Vancouver will buzz about you.

Santouka’s toroniku and Marutama’s marinated egg helped create a buzz that lifted these two into the top tier of ramen purveyors in the city.

I think newly open Taishoken, near the corner of Abbott and Pender, can do the same with its pork belly cha-su.

Taishoken is a Japanese based chain that claims to have invented the Tsuke-Men, a.k.a. dipping ramen. When I arrived at this modest size eatery, they were not ready to offer their Tsuke-Men yet. 

Although disappointed, even by having the special shio ramen I got good sense how the Tsuke-Men will go.  
My special shio ramen came with a whole marinated egg, 4 slices of pork belly cha-su, seaweed and nori.  

The difference between regular and special is the special comes with an egg and I think 2 more slices of meat.  For all ramen on the menu, you get a choice between pork belly cha-su and pork shoulder cha-su (for you health conscious types).

Overall, the portion of noodle is on the smaller side but in line with other top ramen shops like Santouka.

The noodles had a nice chewy consistency.  The egg was subpar; not very flavourful and past soft boiled but not reaching green rimmed hard-boiled.  As a result, it was a little chalky for my liking.

The Pork Belly cha-su on the other hand was phenomenal!  Each slice had tender pork alternating between succulent layers fat.  The cut of meat was seasoned well with the top and bottom layer having an extra kick of soya sauce flavor.  This cha-su is a winner.

Much like Marutama, what will divide ramen aficionados is the soup.  It’s quite syrupy for a ramen soup stock.  It’s not as thick as gravy but reminds me of a demi glaze; easily coating my heavy ceramic soup spoon and has a similar sheen.  

I actually thought it was neat to see two tones of colour emerge when I swirled my spoon in the soup and the green onion garnish suspended in the liquid, instead of sinking to the bottom or floating on top. 

The flavor of the soup is complex and rich derived from the use of both chicken and pork meat.  It has a strong umami taste, with a bit of a cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.  The flavor of the soup is good but not unique.  I feel it tastes similar to Jinya’s rendition.  

For some, the thicker consistency of the soup will be off putting.  However, I enjoyed it and saw how Taishoken's soup would be a strong foundation for their Tsuke-Men offering.  

With it's rich soup and fatty pork belly cha-su, I felt the size of the my shio ramen was perfectly satisfying, without causing indigestion and general lethargy.

A few days later I returned to try an unusual ramen I had spotted on the menu: the Tomato Ramen. 

The bright red concoction is inspired by Italy.  The regular version has a tomato soup stock, ramen noodles, raw white onions, dry Italian seasonings, Parmesan cheese and your choice of cha-su.  

For the sake of comparison I went with the Pork Shoulder cha-su.  Although seasoned well, it definitely had a much more intense pork flavor in contrast to the pork belly cha-su.  The meat was also much tougher but like I said if you’re health conscious it’s not a bad way to go.  However my preference is definitely the pork belly cha-su.

For the soup, I think they simply added canned diced tomatos to their regular chicken and pork stock.  As a result, the soup for the Tomato Ramen was not as syrupy.  I actually really like the red soup, as the sharp tangy tomato flavor helped mask the cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.

Another component that work was the flavor of the cheese.  It added another layer of umami to the dish.  I wish they had dispersed the cheese a little more evenly so that more bites of noodles would have cheese in it.  Unfortunately they only clumped a small pile in one area and the cheese ended up melting onto my spoon as I tried to spread it around.

In contrast, the raw onions and dry Italian season were a little less successful.  I didn’t enjoy having intense onion and oregano flavor randomly and boldly inserting themselves into my bites of food.  This was so off putting that I probably would not order the Tomato Ramen again. 

However I would consider asking them to substitute the tomato soup for the syrupy pork and chicken stock in their other regular ramen from time to time.

I would definitely return frequently to Taishoken for the delicious and wonderful pork belly cha-su.  I’m also excited to try their Tsuke-Men on my next visit, as it was available and on the regular menu on my second visit.

Taishoken Ramen 大勝軒 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

WTH! Celery is not your friend Blacktail Florist

Cows like to chew cud.
I am not a cow; I don't
Like celery cud.

Celery: benign, watery, fibrous and crunchy.  This stalky vegetable, a diet staple for many, isn't something you see in high end cuisine too often.  It's a tricky item to incorporate into a dish.  Celery's texture and ability to absorb liquid are qualities a chef needs to consider carefully.

Unfortunately, my meal at Blacktail Florist was hampered by celery.  My colleague, The Distributor, and I decided to have a quick dinner at this new Gastown eatery before a show.  Light coloured wood decorated the heritage restaurant, giving it an airy feel.  The service was spot on, friendly and knowledgeable.

Our meal started off well with nicely balanced Fawn cocktails, paired with salmon belly bites and half a dozen Royal Miyagi oysters.

The salmon belly bites consisted of minced salmon belly, a texture similar to negitoro, served on endive cups, topped with fried shallots and pop rocks, and displayed on a bed of dill sprigs.  The salmon's fatty flavour worked well with all the other components.  You occasionally got a pleasant contrasting hit of tangy dill, as some of the loose herb found its way into the bite.

The oysters were topped with a spoonful of sorrel ice slushy, which yielded a green apple, i.e. sweet yet sour, flavour .  The whole ensemble was tasty.  Each slurped oyster provided sweet and briny notes with a clean aftertaste.  Our only concern was that 2 of the rims of the oyster shells were fairly chipped.  It didn't make for a nice presentation and we needed to be carefully slurping the bivalve in those shells.

For our mains, we selected the beef strip loin paired with a "head to tail" celery side, a grilled Humboldt squid served with a celery slaw and a squid ink aioli, and a morel mushroom topped mashed potato veggie side dish.

Head to tail eating is a trendy concept.  Unfortunately it was not a winning effort when applied to celery.  The "tail" portion was a celeriac purée which was smooth, albeit a little salty.  It went nicely with the perfectly cooked medium rare strip lion.  The "head and body" part of the celery was simply a roasted half stalk of leafy celery.

This roasted side was awful.  The celery stalk was not prepped in any way, (i.e. stripped of its tough veins).   As a result, with each chew a dense fibrous wad formed in your mouth.  Basically you got a ball of cud, and it was a negative distraction to the meal.

The Humboldt squid was also tainted by celery.  The squid was grilled with skill.  The tentacled seafood was soft and its subtle sweet flavour shone through.  Then I had a bite of the celery slaw and the dish went down hill.  The slaw contained thin slices of celery & rhubarb and was dressed with a vinaigrette dressing.

Although I still got small ball of cud, the major problem was celery's fantastic absorption ability.  Remember that science trick in elementary school where you cut the bottom of the celery stalk and put it into dyed water?  Within a short time the leaves and stalk of the celery took on the colour of the dye.

In the case of our meal, some of the celery slices absorbed such a large amount of the tart dressing it felt like I was eating a crunchy pickle.  It was a jarring burst of sourness that overwhelmed the subtle flavour of the squid and briny squid ink aioli.

As for our vegetable side, you cannot go wrong with cheesy mash potato adorned with morel mushrooms and bacon.  This was tasty but also verging on being too salty.

Generally, The Distributor and I both felt the strip loin and mashed potato were seasoned a bit too aggressively.

The salt theme continued with our dessert.   I'm not a big fan of Chinese desserts because of the common use of lentils and tubers in them.  So when I spotted sweet potato as an ingredient in Blacktail Florist's smoky dessert, I was curious how a non-Asian eatery would handle a tuber in their dessert.

The smoky dessert consisted of mainly sweet potato custard topped with dollops of cranberry compote and mini spirals of whipped smoked crema.

The server also presented a small chalice filled with salt flakes.  He suggested sprinkling some salt to help balance out the flavours of the dish.  We tried the dessert unsalted first.  Each component had a very unique bold characteristic: the custard was sweet, the compote was tangy and the whipped crema had a bacon-esque smokiness.

Without the salt I didn't feel like the item was very harmonious.  Each part of the confection had a flavour that clamored over one another trying to vie for your attention.  The salt made it worse as it heightened each clashing flavour.  The salt itself created its own problem as well.  In parts where too many saltine flakes gather, the bite taste like a salty funky textured bacon mash of some sort.  

We should have stuck with chocolate and followed my general rule of thumb: no good comes from lentils and tubers in desserts; so don't order it, except for maybe taro.

Overall both The Distributor and I were disappointed with our meal at Blacktail Florist especially given our bill was $100 plus.  The service, cocktail and salmon bites were great.  However the poor choice and execution of the sides that came with the protiens, overall saltiness and lack of cohesion on the dessert marred our experience.

There definitely is a high level of skill present on the execution of the proteins, especially the squid.  Based on other the positives like the salmon belly and service, I would consider returning eventually, especially if they remove celery from the menu.

The Blacktail Florist on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Awesome Basic Cheeseburger from Burger $2.85

A simple burger,
beefy, homey and humble,
Yet satisfying.

On the corner of Pender and Granville in downtown Vancouver, a familiar and some would argue intoxicating aroma of heated grease, charred meat and smoke wafts around a simple food truck.

When I first walked by Burger $2.85, I was transported back to my kitchen at the precise moment where I would use high heat to sear off my steak on the stove top before throwing it into the oven (minus the occasional blaring of the smoke detector and swearing).

I have to admit after tasting my first cheeseburger from the cart, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.  I was actually planning to do a food rumble pitting the Burger $2.85 cheeseburger against other budget friendly and basic burgers.

However after eating at a few food court burgers, I realize the error of my initial assessment and how awesome the cheeseburger from that humble food cart is.

I think to truly appreciate Burger 2.85, I realized that this burger is not meant to be compared with gourmet burgers with fancy toppings from places like Romers or Stackhouse.  To be honest, if places that serve highfalutin burgers and charging the price to match cannot beat a food cart burger, then there are issues.

Instead, this humble burger is a stealthy good basic burger, typically served by fast food outlets and simply satisfies a craving for charred beef. 

The two outstanding aspects of the Burger 2.85 burger are its excellent beef patty and the quality bun.

The beef patty is homey in a good way.  It actually tastes like beef, which is surprising given the price and doesn’t always happen in fast food editions.  In addition to its beefy flavour, the patty is prepared so that it has a nice charred taste to it too.   The meat also has a nice texture as well; firm without being overly dense.

The next thing which makes this burger great, is it uses a fairly soft bun that holds in all the ingredients without turning into mush.  Despite having wet items like sauce, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce, the toasted bun didn’t disintegrate from the moisture of the veggies.  The bun was sturdy but was still soft and enjoyable.

Now I always prefer cheeseburgers to hamburgers, so I coughed up the extra 65 cents.   In return, a slice of processed /American cheese was slapped onto the patty.   The cheese was nicely melted and clung onto the patty neatly.  

The burger is completed with a wedge of fresh iceberg lettuce and think cut slices of tomatoes.  The only thing I didn’t care for was the inclusion of an okonomiyaki sauce.  I didn’t like its sweetness and gingery flavour. 

Overall the tasty cheeseburger from Burger $2.85 is flavourful and made with fresh ingredients.  For $3.50 it is a much better alternative than grabbing a burger from a fast food outlet.

Hamburger $2.85 on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – The Fresh Oysters, Tsunami, Sablefish and Halibut Entrees from Blue Water Cafe

Blue Water Café,
Great seafood meal, with Asian
And West Coast touches.

As I said good-bye to an odd and baffling season for one Aquillini asset, I had an opportunity to eat at a newly (albeit also odd) acquired Aquillini property.  Whenever a new owner comes into a successful restaurant I always worry that the quality of the food will take a nosedive; such was the case when I entered Blue Water Café. 

My ingrained bias for seafood is the Cantonese way: whole (to ensure you are getting what you paid for) and simple (to let the subtle sweet flavour of the seafood standout).  However, if it must be non-Asian seafood, then Blue Water Café is an excellent and tasty choice. 

This was a company meal organized and paid for my food adoring boss (yes I know how lucky I am).  As a result I was able to try lot of dishes, as we shared almost everything we ordered.

We started off with raw appetizers: half a dozen of oysters, a seasonal special of Halibut Carpaccio and the Tsunami.

I believe the oysters were local Kusshi oysters (our company’s resident oyster expert selected the variety for the table).  They were fresh, shucked correctly and served with a simple mignonette and horseradish.   I’m not an oyster expert but they tasted clean and sweet.

The Halibut Carpaccio looked stunning; with thin translucent slices topped with I think arima zansho (pickled Arima pepper seeds) and a vinaigrette.  However taste wise, I felt the delicate white fish was overwhelmed by the flavours of the other components.  

Of the 3, the Tsunami was the star; its torched Hamachi was delicious. The fish’s fatty flavor was complimented nicely with ginger and sesame oil sauce.  Unlike the halibut, the naturally stronger flavour of the Hamachi stood tall and was not overpowered by the other ingredient of the dish.

For the appetizers that had cooked ingredients, we ordered another special, the candied salmon salad, and the Kurobuta Pork Cheeks. 

The chunks of candied salmon were delicious, soft and sweet.  Although plated beautifully with quality ingredients (salad greens, walnuts) that worked well together, in the end it’s salad.  You don’t win friends with salad.

On the other hand I think you may be able to find a BFF with the pork cheeks dish.  The cheeks were breaded, and had nice crunchy exterior and super soft interior. The pork was super tender.  We easily shared the cutlet by tearing it apart with our forks. The nice sweet pork was served with a cauliflower couscous and topped with a lemon caper butter.  To be honest the other components took a back seat to the pork.

Before our entrees arrived, the kitchen sent out an amuse-bouche of pink swimming scallops.  Our table appreciated the goodwill, however it was a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” in finding the small morsel of tender scallop under the buttery breadcrumbs.

For my entrée I selected the sablefish (a.k.a black cod).  The sablefish was enhanced with the traditional Japanese pairing of miso and sake.  The overall dish was Asian inspired with baby Shanghainese bok choy, edamame, shiitake mushrooms, bonito dashi broth and non-Asian quinoa

The fish was fork tender and flaked off easily.  The fish was naturally rich tasting and the sweetish miso sake glaze was a nice accent to buttery flavour of the fish.  Among the well prepped sides, I really liked the crunchy quinoa in the dashi broth.

I was also able to sample some of my coworker’s seasonal Halibut dish.  Unlike the appetizer, the cooked Halibut was awesome with its natural sweetness shining through.  The gnocchi were pillow-y soft.  The green pepper sauce complimented the fish very well.

Finally to conclude our meal we split 3 desserts: a crème brulee, a giant macron and the third dessert eludes my memories and notes, therefore will not be discussed.

While the sablefish had a Japanese influence, the mega macaron had a pan European flare.   On the menu, it’s spelled macaroon but has nothing to do with coconut confection (apparently, two “O” is the British spelling, according to the server).  Inspired by a Black Forest Cake, this supersized French concoction had a German twist.  

All the elements of a black forest cake, cherries, chocolate and whipped cream, were present.  The top and bottom of the dessert had the same crispy yet chewy texture as a regular macaron.  The filling was sweet but not overwhelming as some macaron fillings can be.  I really liked this interpretation of the petite French confection.

As I obsessed over the macaron, my co-workers nearly finished the Creme Brulee without me.  The torched dessert had a thin sugar crust and the custard underneath was not too sweet.  The chocolate ice cream was creamy and was serve with a sauce that had distinct but pleasant banana flavour.

Despite change in ownership, the food and service at Blue Water Café is still top notch and executed well.  Although not everything I sampled was mind blowing, the fresh oysters, Tsunami, Sablefish and Halibut entrees maintains Blue Water Café as my preferred non-Asian seafood destination in Vancouver.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

WTH! Disappointing Mac & Cheese from Reel Mac & Cheese

Sad Mac, not the bomb.
Where is the elevation?
Make better at home.

One thing that really bothers me when I dine out is when I feel I can make what I just ate, better at home.  I grew up in a culture where homemade dishes are fairly different than what is served at Chinese restaurants. 

So when I first got that awful feeling many years ago, that my home version of steak and mash potatoes was so much better than the stale, bland and overcooked $25 plate, my poor friends listened to me rant for hours after the meal.

Over the years I have learned to stop rabidly complaining about it, as I realize you are partly paying for the convenience of not having to cook and clean.  However, it still annoys me a lot since you are paying professionals to prepare tasty food that should be at least as good as home cooking.

Recently, I got that sinking “come on, I can do better” feeling from a food truck lunch.

Reel Mac & Cheese is one of the few food trucks I haven’t visited.  Although I like mac & cheese, it’s not something I crave or eat often which explains my delay to this orange Hollywood themed food truck.

I choose to go with the plain mac & cheese for $7.  I figure if their basic mac & cheese is not up to par then adding toppings like hotdogs and broccoli for an extra charge isn’t going to make it any better. 

For the price, the portion was ample and fair.  The macaroni was soft, with it verging on being too mushy.  The sauce coated the pasta well on the outside but there wasn’t too much extra to allow it to seep into the hollows of noodle, which I would have preferred. 

In terms of taste, the sauce was creamy and rich but not overwhelming.  However it wasn’t super cheesy tasting.  I tasted a faint hint of sharp cheddar and a hit of pepper (probably white since I didn’t see any black flecks).  The biggest flavour came from crispy fried onions, which added a nice fragrant flavour and contrasting texture to the bites they were in.

The mac and cheese I got from Reel Mac & Cheese was disappointing since I’m sure I can whip up a more awesome Mac & cheese in about 30 minutes.  I was hoping for an elevated mac & cheese that made use of spices and a unique cheese or blend of cheeses to create a complex and impactful tasting dish.

It can be done, as my favourite Mac & Cheese comes from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market in Seattle.  

They use their own award winning Flagship cheese (tastes like a cross between cheddar & swiss, and packed full of umami), chipotle chili and garlic powders to create a phenomenal mac & cheese.  Click here for the recipe.

Overall, there’s nothing wrong with the mac & cheese at Reel Mac & Cheese.  If you can’t cook or are too busy then I’m sure this dish will hit the spot.  However, for me it needed more flavour and lacked an interesting defining quality for me to return to this truck near the Olympic Cauldron.

 Reel Mac and Cheese on Urbanspoon